by Wallace Collins
Wallace Collins has experienced the music industry in many forms, breaking in as a music artist himself, and now represents numerous music artists as well as visual artists, designers, and media properties as an entertainment lawyer and intellectual property attorney.
In the most high profile court case Wallace was involved with, his client received the largest monetary judgment ever awarded for the use of a single “sample” in the rap song “Whoomp! There It Is”. He has written numerous articles for legal and trade publications, Billboard magazine, Entertainment Law and Finance and The New York Law Journal, and has appeared on many national television and radio broadcasts including Court TV and Hard Copy.
While it seems like Wallace had an easy road, as the cliché goes, “looks can be deceiving”. What first seemed like a monumental failure turned into a greater passion for life and ultimately, greater success.
Here’s Michael Nova’s inspiring interview with Wallace Collins…
Wallace, before becoming an entertainment lawyer, you were an artist yourself. Can you please share with us how you got your start and how you were able to get discovered by your first record label, Epic Records?
As a young teenager I was an avid songwriter inspired by The Beatles like so many others at the time. I formed bands to be able to perform my songs for an audience and to be able to record my songs.
It was a different era then where you recorded on a small cassette player at home then rehearsed in order to book time and record in a formal recording studio. We would save up what we could for months to afford to book a studio session and make the best demos we could.
For years we would send around our demos to record companies only to be rejected – until one day that changed. Long story short, one time we moved from a 4-track studio where we had started some basic tracks to an 8-track studio. There it turned out that our reel-to-reel master tape now had a lot more tracks, so we filled them up with overdubbed vocals.
We shopped that demo around and got interest from CAM, Jimmy Ienner’s production company that had worked with the Raspberries and he was impressed with what we had done vocally (even though we barely even understood what we were doing). That production company financed us making real masters in a real studio with a real producer, and when I was just 18, I was signed to a record deal with Epic Records.
And what happened after you were signed? This led to a second record deal with EMI?
Without getting into the nitty gritty of the record label shenanigans that went on in that world, our Epic single “Rock & Roll President” was not properly set-up and promoted so was not a hit.
Although it was released by Epic on the same days as Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music White Boy” – so we were in good company – when our single failed to get the traction that those other artists got, we were dropped.
We were heartbroken, but CAM believed in us as a band, and me as a songwriter, and so they financed some more recordings. They pitched us to United Artists records and we were signed again.
We were in the studio working on our album when we got the word that EMI had bought out United Artists. We soon realized that this was not good news since EMI stripped most of the artists off the UA roster, including us. So again we were without a record deal (in an era when you had to have one to be viable as an artist).
That’s unfortunate, but it seems like many bands were caught in similar situations around that time. Can you talk about dealing with the adversity you faced as a recording artist that led you in another direction?
After the Epic deal and the EMI/UA deal I was still just 20 years old, so I kept on working at my craft: writing songs, recording, and performing live at every club and venue we could play. The band line-up would evolve with other players over the years always in an effort to make it better and better.
We played New York clubs during the week and pretended to be a cover band on the weekends to make a go of it. In the early 80s we were playing double bills with The Smithereens at The Bitter End and Kenny’s Castaways in New York city – but when they got signed and we did not, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It seemed we were relegated to playing smoky clubs until the wee hours for meager pay as a cover band, and I grew to resent it. I had hit a sort of glass ceiling that allowed me to play music, but not the way that I wanted to.
As I explained to a friend by analogy, I wanted to be a painter, but instead of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel like Leonardo I was relegated to painting houses – not the level of painter sufficient to satisfy my ambitions at the time.
I did a lot of soul searching while I continued to play music in the club scene. I was not sure what to do at the time, but I knew I needed to change course. Gradually, I gravitated toward the idea of law school, something that would take me completely out of the scene I was in and let me reinvent myself and then come back to the music business reincarnated.
So is it fair to say that you would never have found your passion in life as an entertainment lawyer if you had never experienced the disappointment you felt as a music artist? In other words did the setback in your journey eventually lead you paradoxically in the right direction?
Absolutely, although I felt that I had failed at my life’s goal of being a successful songwriter and recording artist, and I was devastated at the time, having the courage and fortitude to make the extreme change necessary to change course at the time proved to be a lifesaver.
I was stuck on a path that was not leading me where I had wanted to go, and there were certain enjoyable elements of the musician’s lifestyle that acted as a powerful inertia for me. However, as hard as it was to leave the laid back life of a musician living day to day, and engage in the rigors of law school, the change functioned like a rocket launch in moving me to another path in life.
Had I not been brave enough to push myself to make the radical life change, (although there was still a bit of a rocky road ahead), I would never have found the passion I now enjoy as an entertainment lawyer.
So then your journey took you back to law school, but upon graduation, you couldn’t find work in the entertainment industry, so you had to take work in corporate law while looking for the right opportunity to get back into the entertainment industry. Was that a difficult process for you and how did you overcome that challenge?
Although many of my fellow students did not enjoy the rigors of law school, for me it was invigorating. It was hard work, but I was motivated and I enjoyed the challenges.
After graduating there were hefty student loans to pay off and no options for me to get a job with a record company or entertainment law firm since they all wanted lawyers with experience.
I had no choice but to take jobs with corporate firms to get that experience (and pay off some of those hefty student loans). For a few years the big paychecks at the corporate law firms were somewhat satisfying (and practical), but after a while the work seemed soul-killing for me.
I had no passion for the daily work. I was heading in the right direction toward my goal, but I realized that I still was not there yet. However, since some of my old musician friends and others I had known in the record business knew I was now a lawyer, they contacted me, and I started doing some work for them on their contracts on weekends. I found my moonlighting legal work and the music business contracts (and interacting with the music people) was more satisfying than what I faced at my day job at the corporate law firm.
And how did you eventually work your way into the entertainment industry again?
It took some time, but the music business work I did weekends and evenings eventually led to more and more. Friends told friends, and eventually I was getting more and more inquiries – even though I still had my big law firm “day job.”
I kept hustling as best I could to make more and more contacts in the music business, both through musicians and through other people I met that worked at record companies. I attended music business conferences and started writing articles for Billboard and other trade papers.
Eventually, I was invited to speak at some conferences. I came to realize that if I was willing to take another risk, leave the comfort of the big law firm life and strike out on my own, the risk might bring a reward – and it did!
So how were you able to build up your reputation in the entertainment industry to where you were able to reach a level where you felt you were achieving the kind of success that you dreamed of?
Lucky for me, when I struck out on my own as an entertainment lawyer it was the early 1990’s – still a boom time for the record industry. CDs caused many people to re-purchase the same music they already owned on vinyl or cassette along with new music, so money was rolling into the record business.
Rap music was burgeoning, and since some of the bigger entertainment law firms were overloaded with their rock star music clients (and did not necessarily see the future of urban music), solo practitioners like me could pick up business.
Again, luck and timing played a part once I moved myself into the right place. One day an unknown artist called me for a consultation, and we ended up doing a deal with Puff Daddy’s BadBoy Records (and then more and more artists that were going to get signed to BadBoy came to me). A year or so later the same thing happened with Jay Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records: one artist came to me to do his deal, and once I did that deal, the word spread, and then many more artists and producers working with that label came to me.
To be honest, it just kind of kept going and growing like that, and I built it up one brick at a time, until I had built up an entertainment law practice of my own. All the time I kept writing articles and speaking at conferences to it all worked to reinforce what I was doing day to day.
So now as you look back on your journey, what have you learned about overcoming adversity in life, as in our phrase, “fall down seven times, rise up eight”?
The secret to success has certainly been “fall down seven times, rise up eight” for me. There are moments in life where you can stay on the path you are on, even if you are not satisfied with your life just because it feels comfortable and is easier than pushing yourself to make a change.
You need to trust your instincts, and use your mind to overcome the resistance around you. Pushing against the inertia of habit and lifestyle was not easy, but the reward has been great for me: from bedroom songwriter to Epic recording artist, from singer in smoky clubs to Fordham law school, from stuffy corporate law firm to entrepreneurial entertainment lawyer in control of my own destiny.
Each move required me to push myself out of my comfort zone to reach further for something more – but each time the new life turned out to be much more satisfying. I believe that loving what you do and doing what you love for a living is worth a million dollars (no matter how much or how little you actually make doing it). The secret to having a good life is to be happy doing what you do.